Gov. Brown mangles Aristotle on school funding

Aristotle wikimediaJan. 15, 2013

By John Seiler

Gov. Jerry Brown continues to misuse his fine Jesuit education. Explaining why he wants to shift money from middle-class to poor schools, he said:

“Our future depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges…. Aristotle said treating unequals equally is not justice…. Growing up in Compton or Richmond is not like it is to grow up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills or Piedmont….

“If you look at a classroom in Piedmont and you look at one in Compton, it’s a lot different. The [Piedmont] families have far more money, far more access to the better things in life. And the extent to which we can offset that by putting more funding into those school districts [like Compton], we’re going to do that.”

Brown’s words are quoted in a column by George Skelton, who should have done some checking.

I typed in Google: << Aristotle treat equals equally >>.

It brought up an explanation on a page on ethics, “Aristotle came up with the suggestion that distributive justice consists of treating equals equally and unequals unequally (Bk. V, Chap. VI)” of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s major work on ethics and a major foundation of Western ethics. The site referenced the translation by J.E.C. Weldon, which is free on the Internet. In Book V, Chapter VI, we read, in the Stagirite’s translated words:

“Also, if the persons are equal, the things will be equal; for as one thing is to the other thing, so is one person to the other person. For if the persons are not equal, they will not have equal shares; in fact the source of battles and complaints is either that people who are equal have unequal shares, or that people who are not equal have equal shares, distributed to them….

“Justice then is a sort of proportion; for proportion is not peculiar to abstract quantity, but belongs to quantity generally….”


The Web site with the ethics page provide an inadequate triage example I will improve upon. Suppose four people are involved in a car accident. Two are bleeding badly.  The other two are shaken up, but are not bleeding. Whom should the medics treat first? The obvious answer is those bleeding. The two who are bleeding are “equal” in needing immediate care to prevent them from bleeding to death. The who who are just shaken up also are “equal” to one another in also needing treatment; but they are “unequal” to the bleeding victims in that their treatment can wait a little longer.

Brown, instead of referencing Aristotle, instead actually is referencing Plato’s “Republic,” which set up a socialist utopia in which there are three classes: the Philosopher-Kings (such as Brown), the Guardians (police and other government workers) and everybody else who is controlled by the other two. Absolute equality is imposed, and government educates the children.

Brown himself said, as quoted by Skelton, “That’s the whole essence of the progressive agenda, to try to compensate for the global inequalities that are growing.”

Although Plato’s pupil, Aristotle early abandoned his teacher’s utopianism for a philosophy of description of what he could see, and moderation between extremes.

He also strongly emphasized that a free society depends on a strong middle class. He wrote in Book IV, Chapter XI of the “Politics”:

“Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant.  Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme–either out of the most rampant democracy or out of an oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them…. The mean condition of states is clearly best, for no other is free from faction; and where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissensions.”

The vanishing California middle-class

Unfortunately, as Joel Kotkin wrote Sunday in the Orange County Register, the middle-class increasingly is under assault in California, with no relief from Brown:

“The biggest challenge facing our state is not climate change, or immigration, corporate greed, globalization or even corruption. It’s the demise of upward mobility for the vast majority of Californians, and the rise of an increasingly class-ridden, bifurcated society….

“The growing class chasm also distorts state priorities, creating an inordinate demand for public sector employment — and related jobs in health and education — while inculcating deep-seated resentment among private-sector entrepreneurs and professionals toward a state that asks much of them, but gives increasingly little….

“Essentially, there is only one practical solution to this dilemma: a program that promotes economic growth….

“Instead of delusion, California needs policies that can boost economic growth in precisely those areas – construction, agriculture, manufacturing and energy – with the best prospects for creating good, high-paying jobs for both blue- and white-collar Californians. Yet, right now the Legislature and, even more so, the empowered state apparat, seem determined to do everything they can to strangle an incipient recovery in these industries.”

“Bifurcated” means two dominant classes: the wealthy, made up of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and high-paid government workers on top, with most everyone else in the impoverished bottom. The middle-class is squeezed into insignificance. That obviously is happening.

Aristotle and guns

While we’re on Aristotle, it’s worth looking at what Aristotle thought about citizens being able to defend themselves. In the “Politics,” he wrote in Book III, Chapter VII: “Hence in a constitutional government the fighting-men have the supreme power, and those who possess arms are the citizens.”

Arms today, of course, would not mean swords, which would be mostly useless; but guns.

And in Book VII, Chapter IX, he wrote, “But on the other hand, since it is an impossible thing that those who are able to use or to resist force should be willing to remain always in subjection, from this point of view the persons are the same; for those who carry arms can always determine the fate of the constitution.”

In conclusion, we can say Aristotle’s position is that a free society depends on a large, well-armed middle class.

Practical problems

Aside from philosophy, Brown’s desire to shift money from the middle-class suburbs to the poor inner city has several practical problems. One is the cities already get adequate funding. As I have reported, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent close to $30,000 per pupil per year in 2007-08. It might be a little less now because of budget cuts — or more because of Prop. 30.

The second practical problem is the money is badly spent in poor schools. LAUSD’s graduation rate was a pathetic 62 percent — for all that money.

What poor kids need is not more money shifted from middle-class schools, but a complete change of a broken system. I would prefer an end to the Plato-like centralized system 91 percent of kids suffer under. But if we’re going to stay in the current system, then such reforms as the “parent trigger” and charter schools should be advanced.

It also wouldn’t hurt to teach Aristotle, the only genius in history to invent two whole new disciplines, logic and biology. Gov. Brown needs a refresher course and could attend.

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